A History of International Women's Day
in words and images

The Nineteen Seventies and Eighties continued

Melbourne IWD

Early '70s

In Melbourne, 1,500-2,000 people marched from City Square to the Treasury Gardens, with demands similar to those of the Sydney march and in Adelaide where organisers advertised a march on the footpaths, 500 took to the streets. Superintendent E.L. Calder wagged an authoritarian finger at the marchers and warned in the press that the aims of women's liberation "could be subverted by fifth columnists in its ranks". The main coverage was about the failure to march as advertised.

In Canberra, feminists sang songs and made speeches in Petrie Place and held a stall in Civic Square.

In Brisbane, there was no march but traditional and new women's groups met to debate "Which Way to Liberation?" This discussion reflected the tensions between the new and older women's groups.

There were also tensions between the various tendencies within the Women's Liberation Movement, and these have often turned IWD into an arena for political differences.

The establishment of the March Action Campaign for IWD in Sydney, for example, was not greeted with undivided delight. Some were opposed to singling out particular demands, or to reducing the aims of the movement to any set of demands. Some thought the idea of the campaign was too much like traditional ways of organising and others were suspicious of the involvement of women from political parties who were seen as agents of their male-dominated parties in the movement. However, on IWD itself, women from all sections of the movement came together in solidarity.

IWD as a women's day raised the contentious issues of how women should organise, and men's relationship to that. The Women's Liberation Movement cast new light on women-only activity. The movement wanted women to develop their own ideas, strategies and strength away from the patronage and often aggressive misogyny of men. There was almost total agreement on this within the movement, but its application to all struggles was more difficult to agree on. Some women have seen the need for women to be totally separate from male organisations and men. Others have regarded women's organisation has having two simultaneous functions: one, to maintain women's own autonomous activity (i.e. to meet, discuss and act together as women) and, two, to give them the strength and knowledge to participate more effectively in other political struggles with men.

Over the years, male participation in IWD has become less of an issue. They have rarely spoken at rallies, on occasions have been asked to go to the rear of the march, and on others have contributed by providing child care. They have been neither encouraged nor banned. It has become clearly a women's day.

In 1973, 2-3,000 women and some men marched through the streets in Melbourne on IWD. In Brisbane, the UAW organised a forum, and meetings also took place in some other centres.

Feminists in Sydney decided to have a different form of IWD activity that year - a Commission, where women could share their experiences and grievances. It was organised by women's liberation groups and Women's Electoral Lobby (WEL) which had formed in Sydney in June 1972. Six hundred women came during the two days to talk about Women as Mothers, Women as Workers (paid, underpaid, and unpaid), Women and Marriage, Women as Sex Objects and Other Forms of Discrimination.

The first day of the commission exploded into confrontation when the women crowding into the Teachers Auditorium found a man chained to one of the seats. A protest, he said, at the exclusiveness of women's movement politics!

Threats were hurled. Chain cutters produced. Points of order taken. Resolutions moved. Finally he left when an overwhelming majority of women opposed him staying. Two Black women left as well, declaring that their struggle required the presence of men. The feminist movement as a whole had not yet developed any real discussion about the complexities of race or class, and some denied their significance.

The commission itself, when it finally got under way was, in many ways, a watershed for the Sydney movement. It was an exercise in mass consciousness raising about areas of women's lives which had hitherto been ignored and closeted One hundred and thirty-eight women, many of whom had been unable to reveal physical and sexual assaults to their closest friends or family, rose to talk, some making their debut in public speaking as well.

The stories poured out - of the inability to fit into the traditional mould of mother and wife, which was diagnosed as madness, for which the cure was lobotomy. Family violence was revealed by women who had previously believed that, somehow, it was all their fault. Neighbours averted their eyes from the bruises, or closed their windows and doors to muffle the cries, and police refused to act, or sobered up drunken husbands to send them back to bash and even murder.

Women spoke of abortions performed without anaesthetic, of doctors who refused them contraceptives, or would not explain their procedures, treating women patients like wilful children.

Nurses described doctors who made rude and crude remarks about women patients as they lay on operating tables. Rape, pack rape, unfulfilled sexuality and unfulfilled lives emerged. Women sat taut, breathlessly silent as speakers struggled to overcome grief and pain. Some sat alongside the speakers, holding their hands, caressing arms and legs in silent support and sisterhood.

Lesbians, for the first time at a major public gathering of the movement, spoke out about feelings of discrimination and lack of acceptance at large and in the movement. This was to spark off another major and ongoing debate in the women's movement, much of which revolved around arguments for and against the notion that lesbianism was the only real political and sexual choice for women. This was because it was considered by some to be impossible to have anything but oppressive personal or sexual relationships with men.

In lighter moments, others recounted some of the more humorous sides to their struggle as they turned the tables on sexist interviewers, demanding their vital statistics, or pursued the office lecher around a desk.

The commission, in the way of many women's liberation gatherings, made no formal decisions. But, in the best traditions of smaller CR (consciousness raising) groups, it had graphically illustrated the social nature of the problems revealed. In the months that followed, the energy generated there re emerged in new groups, some of which set up the first women's liberation abortion referral services, women's health centres, refuges and rape crisis centres.

The following year, 1974, the opening of the Leichhardt Women's Health Centre, Australia's first government funded feminist centre, was one of a number of Sydney IWD events.

After a meeting in Victoria Park, 600 women marched to Bidura Shelter in Glebe. Among the speakers outside the shelter was Bessie Guthrie who, along with the feminist newspaper Me Jane, had pioneered protests about the treatment of child welfare victims. She also gave many of them personal care and support. Virginity testing, sub-standard accommodation, lack of general education and work training, in some instances brutal punishments were among the issues aired. These conditions helped to produce a situation where, of the 16,000 women and men who went through NSW prisons each year, 70 percent had been in child welfare institutions.

Alternative demands were for an end to virginity testing, community controlled shelters and communal living accommodation, greater social responsibility for children including full time nursery and pre-schools, and creative leisure centres before and after school, and during holidays.

When the meeting finished outside the shelter, the march continued around the outside corrugated iron fence. Unbeknown to the demonstrators, all the normal residents had been deliberately removed for the day, but women banged on the fence calling out messages of support while some others climbed the fence and planted a women's flag on the roof. A violent confrontation broke out with the police, and three people were arrested.

Sydney IWD, and some others, also gave support to three Portuguese women, the Three Marias, who had been arrested for publishing New Portuguese Letters, a collection of letters, Poems and articles dealing with women cloistered by religion, madness and marriage. They were accused of offending against public morals and good custom. This was a serious charge under Portuguese law but was eventually dropped following world-wide protest. Some extracts from New Portuguese Letters were read on IWD and a petition taken up and presented to the Portuguese Consul.

A women's forum on rape, violence in marriage, violence against children, the law and violence, coping with violence and alternatives to violence was held on the Sunday.

There was a special screening of the film Home in which two former state wards reenact their experiences, and a film festival which ran for a week. This marked an expanding area of feminist activity as more women became engaged in all aspects of film production.

A Still from Home, a film made in 1974 about the experiences of two former state wards. Here scrubbing floors for punishment, "corrective" labour or as "training" for life outside.

In Sydney, the Women's Abortion Action Campaign (WAAC) presented a Myna Lamb play What Have You Done for me Lately? and slides on the US struggle for birth control. The Union of Australian Women held a buffet tea at the British Ex Services Club on the UN Status of Women Conference.

IWD was celebrated in a variety of ways in different capital cities. In Canberra there were stalls and a short demonstration at the Portuguese Embassy. In Melbourne a rally and march of 2,500. In Adelaide a luncheon, and in Brisbane and other places a meeting. The topic at the Brisbane meeting was "What Advances in the Status of Women will Follow the Recent State Government Commission of Inquiry?" This commission published submissions and set up an inquiry into the status of women and then nothing more was heard of it.

1975 created some new precedents for IWD as some of the largest marches of women ever held in Australia took place. 1975 was sponsored by governments as International Women's Year which commenced a United Nations Decade of Women. The Whitlam federal government joined with other governments throughout the world in sponsoring special activity but, in addition, the Australian government made some funds available to community and non-governmental organisations to promote women's projects and activity. To feminists, this was a double-edged sword. They needed funding for sorely pressed projects but feared co-option by governments and their representatives. Feminist responses were therefore often contradictory— some would not avail themselves of such funding while others demanded more. Feminists also made a critique of International Women's Year and the idea of a decade for women warning that liberation could not be bestowed by benevolent governments and that conservative governments would deny even the substance of reform, relying on speeches and ceremony. These dilemmas did not prevent active involvement in IWD projects for that year.

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